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Round table: Julie Delpy, Ava DuVernay and Leslye Headland on directing

The trio discuss the ups and downs of being female filmmakers.

August 10, 2012|By Nicole Sperling, Los Angeles Times
  • Julie Delpy, Leslye Headland and Ava DuVerney talked to The Times about the challenges they face as female filmmakers.
Julie Delpy, Leslye Headland and Ava DuVerney talked to The Times about… (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los…)

Looking at the movies opening in late summer and early fall, it would be easy to assume these are go-go days for women in cinema.

Actress Zoe Kazan not only stars in the romantic comedy "Ruby Sparks," she also wrote the screenplay. Likewise, Rashida Jones co-scripted her latest starring vehicle, "Celeste and Jesse Forever," with Will McCormack. Opening in Los Angeles on Friday is Julie Delpy's "2 Days in New York," a follow-up to her 2007 romantic comedy "2 Days in Paris"; Delpy wrote and directed both movies, poignant looks at the day-to-day complications of falling (and staying) in love and navigating the pitfalls of family.

VIDEO Q&A: Julie Delpy, Ava DuVernay and Leslye Headland on directing

A few weeks later, writer-director Leslye Headland will make her debut with the biting black comedy "Bachelorette," starring Kirsten Dunst, Lizzy Caplan, Isla Fisher and Rebel Wilson as frenemies out for a fraught night in New York. And in October, writer-director Ava DuVernay will release the Sundance Film Festival favorite "Middle of Nowhere," a drama about a Los Angeles nurse whose husband is sentenced to prison.

These are hardly the only women in the director's chair this year — Lynn Shelton, Sarah Polley and Lorene Scafaria, among others, opened movies this summer, and Lena Dunham, who wrote, directed and starred in the 2010 film"Tiny Furniture," brought her sly, self-deprecating comic sensibility to television with the HBO hit series"Girls," which last month earned the writer-director-actress multiple Emmy nominations.

But these women are forging their own cinematic paths even as the going for female filmmakers in Hollywood seems to be getting even tougher. Only 5% of the directors of the top 250 highest-grossing movies last year were women, compared with 7% in 2010 and 9% in 1998, according to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University.

Delpy, DuVernay and Headland have found success outside the studio system, working in the independent sphere — each of their new films debuted in January at Sundance. The trio recently visited The Times to discuss their work and the challenges they face as women in the business.

Said DuVernay: "I think we see a lot of women entering the foray of independent filmmaking for very much this reason: You're empowered by private equity and less about going into a room and pitching 'This is my vision.'"

The women represent distinct points on the filmmaking continuum; each have varying degrees of experience and find themselves at different places in their careers. Delpy, 42, began acting as a child in France. She wrote and directed her first feature, "Looking for Jimmy," in 2002, and she was nominated for an Oscar for her screenplay for 2004's "Before Sunset," which she penned with her costar Ethan Hawke and director Richard Linklater.

Like that film, "2 Days in Paris" explored the interactions of a young couple in France but with a more overtly comedic touch. It became a niche indie hit that made $4.4 million in 2007, and Delpy said she was intrigued by the idea of checking back in with her character, Marion, five years down the line.

As it turns out, Marion has settled into a mostly healthy relationship with Mingus (Chris Rock) in New York, though the arrival of her loud French relatives quickly begins to disrupt their domestic harmony. Magnolia Pictures is releasing the new film, which was shot on location in New York.

For DuVernay, screening her film at Sundance turned out to be a landmark moment in her career: She became the first African American woman to win the directing award in the U.S. drama category.

The Los Angeles native and UCLA grad turned to directing after years as a movie publicist. She made her first film, a hip-hop documentary, in 2008 and transitioned to narrative features with 2011's "I Will Follow," about a woman moving out of a house she shared with a terminally ill aunt. She shot that film in just 15 days with her own money, less than $50,000.

By that measure, "Middle of Nowhere," with its 19-day schedule and a budget of less than half a million dollars, is a somewhat more expansive venture. Newcomer Emayatzy Corinealdi plays Ruby, a woman who puts her dreams on hold when her husband, Derek (Omari Hardwick), is sentenced to prison. Ruby deals with her mother's disapproval and financial stress as she strives to support Derek emotionally and maintain their union.

DuVernay, 39, is distributing the film through her company AFFRM with Beverly Hills-based Participant Media.

Headland, 31, was a New York playwright (and former Weinstein Co. assistant) who was encouraged by "Bachelorette" producers Will Ferrell and Adam McKay to direct the adaptation of her off-Broadway production.

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